Veterans Recall: Chaplain Sacrificed Life for Fellow Marines

Fr. Vincent Capodanno died serving U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

There are many ways to mark Veterans’ Day. Parades, flags, stories and simple thank-you’s for most of us; a sleazy leftist whine demanding we stop calling soldiers “heroes” for Salon. For some Marines who served in Vietnam, they choose to honor the “Grunt Padre,” and their reverence isn’t confined to Veterans’ Day.

Grunt Padre was the nickname U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Vincent Capodanno earned for his service to Marine infantrymen in Vietnam. Capodanno died on the battlefield between a soldier and an enemy automatic weapon in his final act to aid – both physically and spiritually – the young men he served. 

Born in New York in 1929, Fr. Capodanno ministered to citizens in Taiwan (and, later, Hong Kong) after his ordination in 1958. A few years later, Capodanno requested a change: to serve the Marine troops in Vietnam as a chaplain. He began his new task in 1966.

“Father Capodanno,” according to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, “was more than a priest ministering within the horrific arena of war.” Over the course of nearly a year and a half in country:

He became a constant companion to the Marines: living, eating, and sleeping in the same conditions of the men. He established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for the local villagers. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions, instructing converts, and distributing St. Christopher medals.

And his dedication lasted until to the very end. Capodanno was serving with the with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines on Sept. 4, 1967 when the unit encountered a North Vietnamese ambush that became an intense battle, with the Marines outnumbered  5-to-1 in a battle against 2500 NVA. Capodanno was with them.

One Lieutenant Joseph E. Pilon recalled:

“Early in the day, he was shot through the right hand which all but shattered his hand- one corpsman patched him up and tried to medevac him but Father C declined saying he had work to do. A few hours later, a mortar landed near him and left his right arm in shreds hanging from his side. Once again, he was patched up and once again he refused evacuation. There he was, moving slowly from wounded to dead to wounded using his left arm to support his right as he gave absolution or Last Rites, when he suddenly spied a corpsman get knocked down by the burst of an automatic weapon. The corpsman was shot in the leg and couldn't move and understandably panicked. Fr. C. ran out to him and positioned himself between the injured boy and the automatic weapon. Suddenly, the weapon opened up again and this time riddled Father C. from the back of his head to the base of his spine.”

Capodanno was shot 27 times and died on the field. Veterans’ testimonials on a site dedicated to the “Grunt Padre” include:

  • Corporal William Kuffrey:  “I am not a Catholic but this Man of God meant more to me than I ever could have imagined. He inspired me in so many ways in my times of need while in the combat zones of Vietnam. I will never forget him.....ever.” 
  • Lieutenant Steve Bowen: “Capodanno was incredibly serene and competent under fire, scared like the rest of us, but never showed it. When someone was wounded or killed, he was amazingly comforting. My youngest is a Marine officer who just got out and I’ve always mentioned Capodanno as most impressive man I met.”
  • Lieutenant Coronel Basile Lubka: “He never spared himself. His dedication to duty will stand as a hallmark to Naval Chaplains everywhere. He exhibited those rare qualities of humanity, selflessness, and humility that are seldom achieved, even by chaplains.” 
  • Major E. F. Fitzgerald: “On numerous occasions, this officer was observed running across exposed paddies and areas to be at the side of a Marine. With no apparent regard for his personal safety, thinking only of the wounded or dead Marine, he carried his inspiration and prayer to those who needed his help.”

Others remembered, as the National Catholic Register reported, the priest’s actions during his final battle:

  • Corporal Keith Rounseville: Father Capodanno “was jumping over my [fox] hole, all the while exposing himself to enemy machine-gun fire to try and give aid to a wounded Marine. Chaplain Capodanno looked and acted cool and calm, as if there wasn’t an enemy in sight. As he reached the wounded Marine, Chaplain Capodanno lay down beside him and gave him aid and verbal encouragement and telling him medical help was on the way.” 
  • Corporal Ray Harton on the priest finding him when wounded: “As I closed my eyes, someone touched me. When I opened my eyes, he looked directly at me. It was Father Capodanno. Everything got still: no noise, no firing, no screaming. A peace came over me that is unexplainable to this day. In a quiet, calm voice, he cupped the back of my head and said, ‘Stay quiet Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.’” 
  • Corporal George Phillips: “Father Capodanno was not about Father Capodanno. He was about the people he served.”

Father Capodanno earned memorials and several medals for his service, including the Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

The Catholic Church opened his case for sainthood in 2002 and in 2006 deemed him a “Servant of God” in order to recognize – despite what the media say – a selfless hero.

The Father Capodanno Guild, which includes Marines who served with the priest, was established to promote the cause for his canonization.

— Katie Yoder is Staff Writer, Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow in Culture and Media at the Media Research Center. Follow Katie Yoder on Twitter.